I challenge anyone to explain the plot of Martin McDonagh’s new play without getting a ‘sorry, what?’ in response. Hans Christian Andersen, the beloved Danish children’s author, is a bumbling, vainglorious fool who hasn’t penned a single word. His entire oeuvre can be accredited to a female Congolese pygmy, whom he keeps locked in a small wooden pendulum in his creepy, Copenhagen townhouse. ‘Marjory’ (Hans has discarded her African name because he can’t pronounce the ‘ms’ and ‘bs’) writes all his world-renowned fables, from ‘The Ugly Duckling’ to ‘The Little Mermaid’, from inside her prison; whereupon Hans removes the more controversial elements and publishes them under his own name. It’s an interesting allegory to choose to tackle issues of colonialism; it highlights the predominantly white, male authorship of the Western literary canon, and the way our history is constructed to exclude the narratives of the oppressed. As the strong-willed, whip-smart ‘Marjory’ attempts to weave underrepresented characters into her stories, Hans changes ‘’the bits I don’t like then erase[s] all the rest from history’’, illustrating the discourses of power in action. She writes the famous mermaid as a black character, but Hans worries this won’t appeal to ‘small, normal children’ (the creepy, shiny-haired little Danes who make up his audience). He defends himself by arguing ‘there’s no such thing as black mermaids’, to which ‘Marjory’ rightly exclaims ‘there’s no such thing as mermaids!’
“Rather too ludicrous to explain coherently”
As for the rest of the plot, it’s rather too ludicrous to explain coherently. I will say though, that it involves a couple of time-travelling blood-covered Belgian soldiers from the Belgian conquest of the Congo (which has not yet happened), a machine-gun disguised as a haunted accordion, and a visit to a foul-mouthed Charles Dickens who keeps ‘Marjory’’s now-deceased sister in his attic writing his own fiction. Oh, and there’s a recurring voiceover from Tom Waits. Only a playwright with McDonagh’s reputation could have pitched this successfully, not to mention getting the brilliant Jim Broadbent onboard as his leading man. It’s certainly intriguing to watch such a bizarre spectacle unfold onstage with such untempered gusto, thanks in large part to Matthew Dunster’s terrifically wacky staging. Its absurd historical pageantry is rather reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s use of non-naturalistic techniques to dramatise structural inequalities and abuses of power, although Churchill does this somewhat more successfully. I have to wonder, though, why McDonagh is so very obsessed with using characters of short stature as comedic instruments and why so much of his humour relies on ableist jokes. In Bruges drew many of its laughs from Jordan Prentice’s role as a ‘racist dwarf’, who is mocked and karate-chopped by Colin Farrell’s hitman Ray. Similarly, his stateside hit Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri cast Peter Dinklage as ‘the town midget’, whose primary function seemed to be to act as a mismatched love interest for Frances McDormand and serve as the recipient of a few cheap gags (see Eva Squire’s excellent piece in The Guardian). With this context it’s difficult to assume that he’s created this character with any more sophisticated intent, and quips about her hanging herself come across as distinctly unpleasant.This excessively persistent ableism is just embarrassing for McDonagh at this stage; surely such a high-profile writer can get by without resorting to such inappropriate and derogatory material? Furthermore, it is curious, given the storm of critique around his representation of racial politics in Three Billboards, that McDonagh should follow it up with a play like this. Many critics accused him of not addressing America’s complex racial history, or the politics of colonialism in general, and creating a narrative which reformed a racist, white Southern cop and sidelined characters of colour (see Amrou Al-Kadhi’s excellent piece for The Independent, or Wesley Morris in The New York Times). Perhaps McDonagh thinks he is tackling these issues head-on by charging in guns-a-blazing to attack one of the most horrific and complex colonial conflicts of all time (King Leopold II’s invasion of the Congo) and turning beloved Western cultural icons into ignorant oppressors. It cannot be denied that ‘Marjory’ is presented as a righteous, wacky genius (thanks largely to American newcomer Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles’ gutsy performance) and the two authors as childish idiots, but I was still left questioning what McDonagh thinks he has achieved here. I’m not saying there aren’t funny moments; there is something fundamentally amusing about two literary giants rendered intellectually impotent. The repartee between them is undeniably entertaining, in a farcical sort of way, and linguistically sharp. Hans repeatedly calls him Charles Darwin, prompting Dickens to scream ‘I’m the Christmas cripples, he’s the origin of the fucking species!’ But it seems to me that McDonagh is promoting quite a dangerous mentality, one which is ever-more pervasive in the current ‘PC-gone mad’ climate. He seems to think that simply by presenting controversial and contested topics like racism, sexism, colonialism and ableism, that he is properly addressing them. In fact, he is doing the opposite.
“This laughter is not productive or subversive, it is very, very, very conventional”
By presenting these issues in such an irreverent, edgy way – by saying, ‘aren’t I brilliant, dealing with such risky and problematic subject-matter’, he is effectively closing these topics off for debate and framing those who might actually address them as humourless bores. He is positioning himself as post-politically correct and making this an attractive stance to take, cleverly evading all critique by presenting shockingly offensive, racist and sexist language in a shrewdly self-aware showcase of ideological and linguistic dexterity. In doing so, he’s aligning himself with a tradition of toxic males who have adopted the guise of the glamorous cultural outlaw to veil a complete disregard for the views of minority groups. His sharp, acerbic quips and quick-fire one-liners are all cleverly constructed to condense, to shut down, and to cut off, subversive topics with the immediate laughter that they provoke. By doing so, he enables his audience – predominantly white, middle-class folks who can afford to spend up to £75 a ticket – to laugh along, uproariously, with uncomfortable stereotypes and excessive swearing because we feel that we are doing so ironically. But this laughter is not productive or subversive, it is very, very, very conventional, for what could be more traditional than a white, male writer making millions by presenting similarly white and male racist, sexist, ableist bigots as affable buffoons, and historic minorities as comic stereotypes? If McDonagh can’t do better than this then he simply doesn’t deserve his current platform. A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter runs at the Bridge Theatre until 6th January, ticket information can be found here.
Image: The Bridge Theatre